Social Status is in the Cake / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

A bride looks at the multi-tiered cake designed for her wedding. (DC)
A bride looks at the multi-tiered cake designed for her wedding. (DC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Havana, 23 January 2016 — A cake in the shape of a camera, figures of the newlyweds modeled in sugar, or the Real Madrid team emblem are some of the offerings of a private company that arranges weddings and birthday parties. The company enjoys a growing number of customers in a society where the quality and height of the cakes has become a status symbol.

How many tiers will the cake have? The answer to this question demonstrates one’s economic solvency and widens the gap between those who can afford a pile of sugar and meringue, with fountains, LED lights and a layer of chocolate, and those who will have to make do with a sponge cake made at home with much ingenuity and few ingredients.

“For my son’s birthday I ordered a cake in the shape of a pool table,” said one 50-year-old lady who has become a faithful customer of Kirocake, a pastry making business that prides itself on making “art for the palate.” Located in the Miramar neighborhood, the small business also boasts of creating almost anything its customers ask for.

The orders are as varied as you can imagine. From the image of the little monkey Cheburaska for someone who grew up watching Russian cartoons, to the creation of Disney’s Tinker Bell for a little girl. As there are no limits on dreams, the small self-employed producers pick up the pace to anticipate the future. Some of them are already producing designs from the Star Wars or Minions movies.

At Kirocake the specialty is fondant, a sugar-based paste, and they offer their customers a tasting to choose the flavors for the filling and decorations. The confectioners also work in whipped cream, but it is considered unstable for cakes, which can measure up to four-and-a-half feet high.

“The fondant has a creamy milk texture and tastes like honey,” a Kirocake employee explained to 14ymedio while putting the final touches on a wedding cake. A classic cake for this kind of occasion, with sugar roses, for 80 guests and about 30 inches high, costs no less than 200 Cuban convertible pesos, the equivalent of eight months salary for a professional.

The producers of these sugary wonders generally have a food handler license and are subject to frequent inspections. “We have to have the receipts for all the ingredients,” says Richard, who runs a small company that arranges parties in San Miguel del Padron. But the man does not hide the fact that, “If we were guided by the law, we couldn’t even make a pancake.”

In the informal market there is a wide range of raw materials for pastry and baking products, such as eggs, flour and meringue dyes. Most of these products come from the diversion of resources from state agencies. “If we didn’t buy under the table, we would have to sell our cakes at prices where nobody would but them,” says Ricardo.

In March of last year, 19 employees from the Havana Base Business Unit for Collection and Distribution of Eggs and from the Provincial Trade Company were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 8 to 20 years for the theft of eight million eggs, with an economic impact of almost 9 million Cuban pesos, according to a report in the official press.

A few months later, in an inspection of 60 boxcars carried out by the Provincial Railway Company, it was determined that between September and October alone, over 100,000 pounds of flour disappeared while being transported by rail. A portion of this stolen merchandise is likely to end up in the cake of their dreams of countless brides and quinceañeras (girls celebrating their 15th birthdays).

Other ingredients, says Ricardo, such as “the most sophisticated, are imported by mules or people who travel abroad.” Examples of these delicacies include, “gold and silver edible sugar pearls, vanilla sugar, truffles and many of the accessories we use such as fountains, lights, Ferris wheels and carousels.”

Self-employed event organizers such as Megafiestas, D’eventos and Sentir Eventos, offer all-inclusive packages from the rental of the hall to the artistic invitations, including the décor, wedding clothes, stylists, photographers and classic car rentals, mostly convertibles. A wedding arranged in this way cannot be done for less than 3,000 CUC (about $3,300 US).

Not only do they specialize in wedding parties, quinceañeras, christenings and anniversaries, they can also arrange wedding showers and bachelor/bachelorette parties. Their business cards speak of “the discretion of their specialists” able to focus on “each customer’s uniqueness.”

For those nostalgic for Russian cartoons, Kirocake designed this cake with the image of the little monkey known as Cheburashka.(Kirocake)

Having a party with a huge cake would be nothing without a hall decorated by professionals with flower arrangements or balloons, tablecloths, covers and bows on the chairs, fountains of champagne and chocolate. The wedding buffet has also emerged from the narrow framework of the cardboard box with cold salad, croquettes and party sandwiches.

“That went out of style,” says Mara, helping a friend prepare her wedding. The current buffet “contains shrimp, canapés, cheeses and smoked salmon.” The cake commissioned by Mara for her friend will have 14 layers on six tiers, constantly running colored fountains, mirrors, LED lights, and will cost 150 CUC. The new emerging class makes no excuses for falling into kitsch; what most matters is differentiating yourself from others.

Gabriela, 39, started saving money when her daughter was 10 years old: “I’m putting a convertible peso into the piggy bank whenever I can.” She, like most Cubans, lives day-to-day, but does not give up the dream of an elaborate celebration for her daughter’s 15th birthday. “I want to have an album of photos, and cake she can snack on with her friends,” says the woman. Her fear is that when the time comes she will have to make do with what the state offers.

When young women turn 15 they get a voucher for as subsidized cake at a conventional bakery. With this cake voucher, issued by the Basic Unit of the Food Industry, a person can get a birthday cake for 10 Cuban pesos (about 40¢ US), a quinceañera cake for 30 Cuban pesos, or a wedding cake for 40 Cuban pesos. This is vanilla sponge cake with a guava filling and merengue icing, without elaborate ornamentation and with a standard design.

Gabriela’s daughter has bigger ideas. “I want a cake with Beyoncé’s face” she warned her family. “And I want her music playing everywhere, Mommy.”